Israel bars Russian players from attending ‘legends’ hockey game over COVID vaccine

Exhibition game to mark 30 years of ties between countries set to be canceled after Israeli exceptions committee denies request, saying 17 people got the vaccine too long ago

Then-Russian sports minister Vyacheslav Fetisov, left, during a friendly match 'USSR hockey legends' against 'World Stars team' in Moscow, January 28, 2006. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP/File)
Then-Russian sports minister Vyacheslav Fetisov, left, during a friendly match 'USSR hockey legends' against 'World Stars team' in Moscow, January 28, 2006. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP/File)

Many members of a visiting team of Russian hockey players — who were to take part in a “legends” exhibition game in Israel to mark 30 years of diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and Moscow — have been denied entry to the country, due to COVID-19 vaccine issues, a report said Monday.

The game, scheduled for Thursday, is now facing possible cancelation, Channel 12 news reported.

The 36-strong Russian delegation of 24 players and 12 assistants includes former player Vyacheslav Fetisov, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in ice hockey and a former sports minister turned environmental activist who is a goodwill ambassador on climate issues for the United Nations. As part of their touring activities, the Russian delegation promotes environmental issues.

On Sunday, Israel’s inter-ministerial exceptions committee, a panel that can grant entry to the country for those who do not ordinarily qualify under coronavirus entry restrictions, decided not to grant access to 17 of the players, including Fetisov.

The committee decision was related to issues with the validity of the vaccines that the players received, according to the report, which said that they had received the shot too long ago.

Lev Ganin of the ASCEND non-profit, who organized the exhibition game, said in a statement that the development would harm Israel’s standing on the world stage.

“We greatly regret the committee’s decision,” Ganin said. “The decision to not let them enter Israel will not serve our global public relations.”

Ganin said he was in contact with Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov and the Russian ambassador to Israel and hoped “a solution will be found to prevent the discomfort that will be caused to all of us.”

He noted that some of the Russian delegates were at the recent UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, where they faced no difficulties in entering the UK. Ganin said he had informed the committee that the visiting Russians are prepared to undergo any virus tests needed to gain entry to the country, “but we were met with a refusal to grant them approval, an unclear refusal that will cause unnecessary damage to Israel’s image.”

In addition to attending the game, the Russians were set to meet young Israeli ice hockey players and participate in a ceremony celebrating the three decades of relations, which will be held at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba.

On Monday, the Tourism Ministry announced that it was holding off on allowing in tourists inoculated with Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine.

Originally, Israel said that it would start allowing visitors who received the Russia-developed shot starting November 15, but that move will now be postponed until December 1. Those inoculated with Sputnik V will be required to take a serological test to show the presence of antibodies, as per the original decision.

The World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency have not approved it and some have questioned the lack of transparency of Russia’s vaccine trials.

Russia is still in the middle of a wave of infections that began in mid-September, and has been seeing record daily highs in the number of deaths.

The surge in infections and deaths comes amid low vaccination rates, lax public attitudes toward taking precautions, and the government’s reluctance to toughen restrictions.

The former Soviet Union established diplomatic ties with Israel days after the establishment of the Jewish State. It then broke off ties following the 1967 Six Day War but reestablished them in October 1991.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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